Due to GCI’s Denominational Conference this month, this issue
of “Equipper” has limited content. We’ll return in
September with a full issue. In the meantime, enjoy the conference and the
rest of your summer!
Does your congregation follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in its
worship planning and preaching? If so, you might be interested in syncing
your children’s church (or children’s Sunday school) lessons
with the RCL weekly Scripture readings. To help you do that, the Episcopal
Church publishes RCL-synced lesson plans designed for young (non-reading)
children, older children and adults. You’ll find them at http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/lessons/.
These lesson plans follow the RCL with minor modifications. Adapting
them for use in GCI would not be difficult. Note that these lessons are
copyrighted and may not be copied without permission from the
-Ted Johnston, Equipper editor
Sermon for September 3, 2017
Scripture readings: Ex. 3:1-15 and Ps. 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b;
(or Jer.15:15-21 and Ps. 26:1-8) Rom. 12:9-21; Matt.16:21-28
Sermon by Dustin Lampe from Matt. 16:21-28 and Rom. 12:9-21
TOTAL SURRENDER (part 2) GIVE IT AWAY!
Note: this is part 2 of a 2-part series titled "Total Surrender." For
Part 1 ("Give It Up!"), click here.
In Part 1 of this series on Total Surrender, we looked at the
passive side of surrender: Give It Up! Now in Part
2, we’ll conclude the series by looking at the active side
of surrender: Give It Away! We’ll do so by examining the
words of Jesus and Paul, seeing 1) the steps toward total surrender, 2) the
actions of the surrendered life and 3) the peace that results.
Perhaps you’re heard theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story.
Raised in Germany in the early 1900s, he grew up in a large, well-to-do
family. He loved to play sports and to play piano. In his early teens, he
decided he was going to be a theologian. By the age of 20, he had written
his doctoral thesis—a paper still widely read by even the most
advanced students. Denominations will argue about the aptitude of great
theologians such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth and Thomas
Aquinas, but when it comes to Dietrich, rarely will you hear one try to
argue with his teaching. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, without a doubt, a genius
and the Christian church around the world is indebted to him—both for
his brilliant writing and for his example of total surrender.
In his early 20s, Bonhoeffer became a renowned professor. By his late
30s, he had accepted a position to teach theology in America. But there was
something ominous going on back in Germany and Dietrich was filled with
guilt as he sat at ease lecturing in America while his country descended
into turmoil under the tyrannical leadership of Adolph Hitler.
After a few months of angst, he set sail back for his country full of
confidence that God was calling him to return home to Germany where,
tragically, the German church had come into submission to the German
government. This change happened gradually, but soon the teachings of
Hitler about a pure German race were accepted as Christian teachings. Some
Christians readily accepted these teachings, while others did so out of
fear. But Dietrich and some others openly objected. At his arrival in
Germany, he was unable to openly teach Christian doctrine, so he formed an
underground seminary where he taught students.
The question Dietrich faced was two-fold: “What do I do to stop
this.” And “what is my call to action to participate with Christ?”
Though he knew about, and had even taught about pacificism (accepting
Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek), he came to believe that in this
circumstance, Hitler should be executed. With a band of a few other people
who had not bought into the delusional teaching of Hitler, he helped plan
Hitler’s assassination, Those plans were carried out twice—once
in a meeting and once on an airplane—both failed. Eventually
Dietrich’s part in the assassination plot was discovered, he was
imprisoned and, at age of 39, the German Gestapo executed Bonhoeffer by
1) The steps toward
What does Bonhoeffer’s story teach us about the surrendered
life? To answer that question we need to look at what Jesus teaches
in Matthew 16:21-28 concerning the steps toward total surrender.
In this passage, Jesus tells his followers that he is headed toward a
time of terrible suffering. Peter objects, arguing that Jesus must not
allow that to happen. But Jesus doesn’t take too kindly to Peter’s
rebuke and warns him that is is thinking the way Satan does (telling him to
“Get behind me, Satan!”). By focusing on mere human things, Peter is
ignoring the things of God—the sovereign reign of God.
At this point, Jesus turns to the disciples and addresses the topic of
total surrender. He tells them three things: 1) to deny themselves, 2) to
take up their cross, and 3) to lose their life. Jesus wasn’t pulling any
punches—he was making it clear what Christians are called to.
What is Jesus’ strategy here? Is he wanting to portray the
Christian life as so humanly impossible that we’ll have to rely fully
on God? Well, I see a couple of things that Jesus is doing here: First, he
is offering a general call to all people to self-denial. Second,
he is offering a specific call to each individual, saying they
have a particular cross to bear, a particular life to lose. But how do we
apply this personally?
First, we have to recognize that we have a particular self to
deny. As each of us grew up, we formed a
particular identity. That was true for Jesus as he formed an
identity as he grew up—one that was particular to both his genetics
and to the environmental context in which he was raised. Scripture says
that as he grew up, he gained wisdom and also favor with both God and the
people around him.
As each of us grew up a million factors shaped our emerging
identity—our emerging self. Some of those factors were
genetic (our DNA) and others were environmental. Some call this
What follows is an illustration from my
own life— you will need to change the details to fit your
My container was shaped around working hard on the farm, playing
baseball, making friends, going to a Methodist Church, being a white boy,
the grief of my dad’s death when I was young, the anxiety of growing up
in a mixed family when my mom remarried, etc.
However, these factors are not “Dustin.” Whether my little ego can
handle it or not, “Dustin” is who Jesus Christ says I am. And to
surrender to Christ and so deny myself, gives me the freedom to say with
Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ
lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In surrendering to God all that I labeled
as “my life,” I find my life. By taking all that Christ says is “my
life” seriously, I find my life.
The point here is that your life—the factors that define your
identity—brings with it a particular cross to bear, a particular set
of things to surrender to Christ. Your cross may be your own set of very
hard circumstances. But those circumstances do not define your true
identity. In Christ, you are not defined as depressed, happy, rich, poor,
red, blue, but as something so much more… or, we might say as so
Your container formation said you were these things, but in surrendering
to Christ you embrace his claim as to who you are—God’s beloved
child—regardless of the circumstances or what people might be
2) The actions of the surrendered life
Let’s now look at what Paul says in Romans 12:9-21 about actively
living out Jesus’ call to total surrender. We might call this
“surrender in action.”
Following up on his call to us to be transformed (Rom. 12:1-8), Paul
exhorts us in Rom. 12:9-21 to let that transformation happen by taking
active steps in the direction of total surrender. He tells us to 1) hate
evil and love good, 2) live in harmony, and 3) bless our enemies instead of
seeking vengeance. His instructions clearly assume we will, at times,
suffer in following Christ. However, it shows us that God provides a way to
live through the suffering, thus overcoming evil with good.
The surrender Paul illustrates involves good works—action. Though
Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10 that it is by grace that we are saved, we
are called as those saved to participate in the good works of Christ.
When grace—God’s unconditional love for and favor toward all
people—is deeply experienced and so valued, hard work and devotion to
God becomes sheer joy. Grace and hard work thus go together. Good works are
built on the solid rock of God’s grace! Though we are not saved
by the works, the life that Christ gives us includes good works.
Works apart from grace, or some effort to “earn” or
“deserve” grace is legalism.
So here we learn from Paul that suffering is part of a life of total
surrender and that our identity is grounded in the grace of God, not in our
works, though in following Christ, we will be active participants in his
work, which flows from grace.
3) The peace that results
From Jesus words in John 16:33, we learn about the peace that results
from total surrender to God.Speaking of his oneness with the
Father and the troubles that are about to erupt, Jesus tells his disciples
that though they face troubles in the world, in him they “may have
peace.” This is the case because Jesus has “overcome the
In making this pronouncement, Jesus is helping his disciples learn that,
in the midst of life’s troubles (that often lead to anxiety-driven,
frenzied activity), they can have peace—the peace that comes by
trusting in the one who has overcome the world and its troubles through his
own suffering and death.
Theologian Ray Anderson once shared a relevant illustration. He told of
two people standing on a mountain top, looking out on a radiant scene
below. One says, “I’m glad we made it here, now let’s get
back to work.” Another, filled with wonder and worship, says
“Let’s linger here a while, soaking in the grandeur of God’s
Sadly, here in the West, there is an anxiety-driven, even tyrannical
sense of urgency—get more, do more, see more. But then there is
Christ’s call to surrender—to surrendering the false values
that are the basis for this anxiety in order to find our rest, our peace,
Sadly, much of my early experience as a Christian was more about anxiety
than rest. I was driven to be better, do more for God, hurry up and get
more knowledge. I see that same perspective among many today. Their
perspective on Christianity creates more anxiety than peace of mind.
We all need “space” in our lives to enjoy the view—to
worship God, and so have peace of mind, despite what’s going on
around us. That “space” includes time for prayer—time to
sit in God’s presence and to enjoy the view. I recently asked a
person in our church to volunteer and I can’t tell you how pleased I was
when they replied, “No, I need to take more time and just sit with
Don’t misunderstand my point. Total surrender to God is not
passive—it involves focused action, as noted by Dietrich
The Christian cannot simply take for granted the
privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in
the midst of His enemies. In the end, all His disciples abandoned
Him. On the cross He was all alone, surrounded by criminals and
the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of
bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong
not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of
enemies. There they find their mission, their
From the words of Jesus and Paul, and also Bonhoeffer, we learn that
surrender to God is dynamic and active. But because it is grounded in the
grace of God and involves trusting in and therefore resting in Christ, it
brings about not anxiety and frenzy, but joy and peace. Actively
surrendering to God yields a taste of heaven while living here on
Make no mistake about it, as we surrender to God, we will encounter
trouble. How well Bonhoeffer knew that! But no matter how dark it gets in
the midst of that trouble, we know something more important—we know
that we belong to God. Our identity as a child of God, which is our true
identity, is not based on what’s going on around us. It’s also
not based on what we do (or don’t do). Instead, it’s based on
who God says we are, and what Jesus has done through his total surrender to
God to secure that identity for us. In that, let us have peace. In that,
let us rest. And based on that, let us join Jesus in the work he is now
Sermon for September 10, 2017
Ex. 12:1-14 and Ps. 149
(or Ezek. 33:7-11 and Ps. 119:33-40)
Rom. 13:8-14; Matt.18:15-20
Sermon by Ted Johnston from Matt. 18:10-20 and Rom. 13:8-10
EXHORTATION TO RADICAL GRACE
In our readings today from Ex. 12, Ezek. 33, Rom. 13 and Matt. 18, we
are confronted with the way of the Lord, which often is quite different and
thus at odds with the way of the world. But a merciful God covers our sin
(Ex. 12) and sends us teachers (“watchmen”) who call us to a
better way (Ezek. 33), which is the way of love (Rom. 13). That way is
perfectly exemplified in the radical grace lived and taught by Jesus (Matt.
In today’s sermon we’ll focus on Matthew 18:10-20, which
follows Matthew 18:1 where Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is
the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In the rest of the chapter,
Jesus answers their question in a way that is radical and thus unexpected.
Jesus takes the normal order of things and turns it upside-down.
The upside-down values of Jesus
In Matthew 18:2-5, Jesus shows that the way of the kingdom of heaven
contrasts sharply with the ways of the kingdoms of the world, including
humanly devised religions.
The way of Jesus and his kingdom is the way of radical grace.
Jesus makes that point by noting that the citizens of his Father’s
kingdom will not be the powerful, elite and influential people, but those
who, like “little children,” are without power and guile. Jesus
welcomes such into his Father’s kingdom and urges his disciples to
join him in doing so—join him in living the way of radical
grace. Note Jesus’ admonition:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I
say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My
Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was
lost. (Matt. 18:10-11, NASB)
Jesus is urging his followers to reject false understandings of
“greatness”—ones that would cause them to look down on
“little ones” who actually are “great” based on kingdom
values. These little ones are great, not because of any merit of their own,
but precisely because they are “little.” The Son of Man is out
searching for these little ones who are said to be “lost” (note that
verse 11 is a footnote in the NIV—that verse is not in the oldest
manuscripts, though it is consistent with the point Jesus is making here).
Jesus’ exhortation is not about the qualifications of the
people being sought, but about the love and grace of the person who is
doing the seeking. It’s also about an invitation to the followers of
Jesus to embrace his values and join him in seeking the lost.
The Parable of the Wandering Sheep
This exhortation from Jesus is preceded (in Matthew 18:6-9) with a
warning: Woe to anyone who would strip any of these little ones of
the grace that God has given them, thus causing them to stumble. To
emphasize this exhortation and warning, Jesus then tells his disciples what
has come to be known as The Parable of the Wandering Sheep.
Let’s take a look, starting in chapter 18, verse 12:
What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one
of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains
and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he
finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the
ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your
Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matt.
Instead of looking down on and rejecting the lost and least (lowly and
powerless), Jesus (and his followers with him), seek after such little
ones. They do so not as a religious, law-based obligation, but out of grace
and love, yielding great joy. Jesus’ heart here is the heart of the
Father who is not willing that any people (represented as sheep) should be
lost (and the Greek word translated “lost” can also mean
Like his heavenly Father, Jesus is full of grace—in fact, Jesus is
grace personified. Rather than shunning the lost, or requiring that they
come after him; Jesus goes seeking after them. This grace-filled move on
Jesus’ part creates a response of gratitude and trust. But even then,
Jesus puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries them home. The point
is clear: God saves by his initiative and power; we do not save
Sometimes, Jesus takes radical action to call a wandering sheep back to
himself. But note that the motive is always love for the sheep. In love,
God sometimes disciplines his children, and that can be painful, though
it’s always for their good, their salvation.
The Father’s tender care for humanity is emphasized in Matt.
18:10, which implies that each individual has an angel that represents them
in heaven—what we’d call a “guardian angel.” That
idea is found in the Bible only here, though elsewhere angels guard nations
(Dan. 12:1) and churches (Rev 1:20). We can’t build a doctrine on
this verse, but we can take comfort knowing that God watches out for us
all—including those who are lost!
That is God’s heart of love and grace toward all people.
Instruction in Jesus’ way of radical grace
Jesus’ words here were, no doubt, hard for his disciples to
swallow. You can just hear them: “But Jesus, what about a little one who
is a sinner? Must we overlook their sin and accept them into our community
with no conditions?” Note Jesus’ reply beginning in chapter 18, verse
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private;
if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen
to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three
witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them,
tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let
him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever
you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18,
Here Jesus explains how the principles he shared in Matt. 18:10–14
work out in a particular case. God’s grace, and his discipline of
those he loves (all people), are not at odds. The context is within the
fellowship of what we refer to as the church, though these principles apply
Jesus’ words are addressed to “you” (singular), the
individual who is aware of the other person’s sin. Some translations
(such as the NKJV) have in v. 15 the phrase “against you.” But
that phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts. Adding it in incorrectly
restricts the scope of what Jesus is saying here. He is addressing the
danger a particular sinner (“lost sheep”) is in, and the
responsibility that his disciples have in reaching out to help that
sinner—to seek and save the lost sheep. The goal in going is not to
punish, but to “win” them back—to see them restored and thus
Like Jesus, who loves and seeks after sinners (Jesus’ love is
active!), we are, in love and for love, to join him in doing the
seeking! We are not to wait for the sinner to come groveling to us,
seeking forgiveness. We are to take the initiative and go to the
We are reminded here that, because of what Jesus has accomplished
through his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension,
all people everywhere are reconciled to God—God has forgiven
and therefore accepted all. No one needs to earn what has already been
given—they just need to reach back to the God, who already has
wrapped his loving, forgiving arms around them. That, dear ones, is radical
That being the reality, as followers of Jesus (those who have come to
understand and so live into this grace) our job—our divine
calling—is to seek out sinners and declare to them their forgiveness
How do we seek after them? Jesus says that we should minimize that
amount of publicity, going one-on-one, or with a couple of other disciples.
There is no need for fanfare, and certainly no need for coercive tactics!
If the person we are seeking to connect with is a follower of Jesus caught
up in some sin (they have gone “wandering”), and this initial
outreach to them does not help, then (and only then) do we take this matter
to the church in an official way. Should the offending disciple not respond
to an appeal from the church, then the remaining course open to the church
is to sever fellowship. Note, however, that the goal of this last-ditch
step is not punishment but a strategy to bring about restoration.
The Great Shepherd’s discipline of his wandering sheep is always
for their restoration. Even if Jesus has to discipline one of them, such
discipline is always adminstered in love, with an eye toward
In taking disciplinary action, the church is exercising delegated
authority in the same way Peter was given authority from Jesus in Matt.
16:19 (note that in Matt. 18:18, the word “you” is plural). The
idea that the church on earth may bring the authority of heaven to bear on
a particular situation involving discipline is continued in Matt.
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about
anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is
in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am
there in their midst.
The point is that the continued presence of Jesus among his people in
situations where church discipline is being exercised ensures that their
united prayers are effective. They are effective because they are in line
with the truth that is in Jesus—the truth of the forgiveness and
acceptance of all humanity in and through the Messiah.
But what about Jesus’ statement back in Matt. 18:17 (NASB) that an
unrepentant sinning brother is to be treated as a “Gentile”
(“pagan” in the NIV) or “tax collector”? This must
be understood in the context of what we’ve already learned about Jesus,
who is a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, and is lovingly sympathetic
toward Gentiles. This statement is likely a traditional Jewish expression
for ostracism, which Jesus here radically reinterprets, perhaps with a bit
of humor and sarcasm thrown in.
I imagine that at this point in their journey with Jesus, his disciples
were deeply troubled by their Lord’s call to live the way of radical
grace. It would have sounded strange to them because this was not the way
they had been taught by the Jewish teachers of the law—teaching that
emphasized retribution and other ways in which people would get from God
“what they deserved.” Jesus’ way is radically
different—it’s the way of getting what you don’t
deserve—God’s grace—the way the apostle Paul describes in
today’s reading in the book of Romans:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who
loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit
adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not
covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this
saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong
to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans
Negatively speaking, love does no wrong to another person—it never
seeks their harm, retribution or vengeance. In that way, love fulfills what
the Law of Moses pointed to. Positively, love actively seeks after those
who are lost (perishing)—it seeks their rescue—it seeks to
bring them home. Paul applies this teaching in Romans 14 where he addresses
reaching out in love to those whose faith is “weak.”
We are reminded today by our Lord of the way he is, and therefore the
way he lives—the way of radical grace. We hear his exhortation to
join him in his way of life, loving the lost and least, reaching out to
them with grace, telling them of the Lord’s forgiveness and
acceptance and his invitation to become one of his followers, who will then
join him in his mission of rescuing the lost and bringing them home.
May we hear and obey our Lord’s word. Amen.
Sermon for September 17, 2017
Scripture Readings: Ex. 14:19-31 and Ps. 114 (or Gen. 50:15-21 and
Ps.103:1-7, 8-13) Rom. 14:1-12; Matt. 18:21-35
Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matt. 18:21-35
Immeasurable, Unlimited Forgiveness
Our readings today address God’s justice, judgment and mercy. In
justice, God judges our sin and in mercy provides forgiveness. He then
invites followers of Jesus, who have received this forgiveness, to
participate with Christ in forgiving those who have offended us. Our Gospel
reading addresses two points about that forgiveness: 1) its frequency and
2) the relationship between divine and human forgiving. By looking at both,
we’ll gain greater appreciation for God’s forgiveness and how we
can apply it in our relationships.
The context of today’s Gospel passage includes Jesus instruction
concerning offending people (Matt. 18:1-14) and responding to people’s
offensive acts (Matt. 18:15-17). The narrative in today’s passage
begins with the 12 disciples competing with each other. Perhaps the special
trip by three of them to the mountain with Jesus (Matt. 17:1) provoked envy
in the others. One of them asks Jesus who among them would be greatest in
the kingdom. Jesus replies by pointing to a little child as being typical
of his true followers. Like a little child, the person who inherits the
kingdom will be humble and trusting.
Jesus then warns his disciples to be extremely careful not to offend
such a person, thus causing them to sin. His instruction here seems
extreme—gouging out an offending eye, cutting off an offending hand.
Jesus was using exaggeration to make a powerful point in the context of a
warning about offending his followers. He was noting that people often
considered unimportant or unlovable are loved by the Father. In the same
discussion, Jesus instructs his disciples concerning how they are to react
when someone offends them. His instruction includes confronting the
offender for the purpose of defusing the situation and achieving
reconciliation. If the response to such efforts is rejection, Jesus
explains that separation might be necessary. With this background in mind,
let’s look at Matthew 18:21-35 verse-by-verse.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times
shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven
times?” (Matt. 18:21)
Anyone who seeks to be forgiving will encounter this problem—what
if the offender, having been forgiven, keeps doing the same offensive
thing? This situation certainly draws out instinctive reactions geared
toward retaliation! Having experienced this dilemma, Peter wonders when
retaliation will be permissible. How tolerant should we be before deciding
to break off our relationship with the offender?
Peter’s question suggests that he thought the answer had to do with
the number of times the offence occurred. In seeking a limited number of
infractions, Peter might have been generous to suggest seven, but he was
still taking a legalistic approach. Recalling that Jesus had taught that in
prayer we are to express forgiveness of others as we ask for forgiveness
for ourselves, he wanted to be obedient. But in the absence of a forgiving
heart, he was looking for a legalistic rule that he could follow and thus
feel good about, after which he might feel free to wreak havoc on the
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but
seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:22)
Jesus did not give Peter the answer he sought. Peter suggested the
number seven (the number of completion) as a generous limit. But Jesus
confounded Peter’s legalistic reasoning by suggesting an absurdly large
number, thus indicating that the number is without limit. Perhaps Jesus
chose the number based on Lamech’s boast in Genesis 4:24: “If Cain
is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Lamech was
boasting about taking vengeance, disproportionately greater than the
offence, upon someone who would injure him. It was like saying, slap me and
I’ll break your jaw! Jesus advocated just the opposite. To explain his
response, Jesus told a parable:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted
to settle accounts with his servants. (Matt. 18:23)
The king in the parable believed in holding his servants accountable. An
important factor in this story is accountability. Jesus chose a story about
money and debt to clarify important points about forgiveness. Obviously
from the context, more than financial debt was involved. But the point of
debt is the clear identification of the offender. The issue between the
king and the indebted servant was neither the king’s fault nor even a
shared fault between the two. The servant was at fault and owed the king
For reasons not explained, the king decided it was time to settle the
matter. The king brought the problem to the attention of the debtor as an
offended person confronts the offender. Sometimes an offended person delays
or avoids confrontation, continuing to bear the burden of the offender’s
debt. Eventually, because the offended person loses patience or the debt
grows larger, a crisis erupts, resulting either in a heated confrontation
or in some form of discharge of the debt. To wait until a crisis erupts
usually is not best.
As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand
bags of gold was brought to him. (Matt. 18:24)
The amount of money referred to here is huge. The word in Greek here
translated “bags of gold” is talanton. The KJV
translates it as “talents.” According to the New Bible
Commentary, “Ten thousand talents combines the largest Greek numeral
with the largest unit of currency.” Jesus was not suggesting an actual
number; instead, he was describing an unimaginably large amount. In our
culture, we might say “a zillion dollars.” The debt was beyond
Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and
his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At
this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with
me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” (Matt.
The debt was so large that everything the servant had, including his
life, the lives of his family members, and all their possessions were
required in payment. Overwhelmed by the enormity of this, the servant
desperately asked the master to indefinitely withhold his anger. As if even
he did not comprehend the size of his debt, he promised to pay it back.
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt
and let him go. (Matt. 18:27)
Though this sentence is short, it says a mouthful. The master took
pity. Understanding the plight of the servant, and hearing his
desperate plea, the master was moved. Literally, he felt “deep
compassion” for his servant, and in the depth of that feeling he
cancelled the debt. What a statement about the power of compassion! In this
case, nothing else could have satisfied the enormous debt.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow
servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to
choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. (Matt.
In Greek, the phrase “silver coins” is denarii. One hundred
denarii was equivalent to several months’ wages at the time. Although
this was not a negligible amount, it cannot begin to be compared to the
size of the debt that had been forgiven. Besides demanding payment, the
servant threatened the debtor with violence. In movies, gangsters use such
tactics to intimidate their victims into immediate compliance. Today, a
call from a collection agency demanding immediate payment “or else”
tends to pressure the debtor into swift action. The point is that the man
who had received unlimited mercy showed not even a little mercy.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him,
“Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” But he refused.
Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay
the debt. (Matt. 18:29-30)
In the same words as the debtor with the immeasurable debt, this debtor,
pleading for patience, promised repayment. Yet, he received no mercy.
Instead he was put into a position of being incapable of repayment of a
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were
outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
To those witnessing this situation, the unforgiving behavior was
outrageous. The words of poet Robert Burns seem fitting here:
Oh would some power the gift give us,
To see ourselves as others see us.
It is a strange quirk of human nature that we are virtually blind to
ourselves. Everyone else sees, but we don’t. That’s not
Jesus’ main point, but it is a related part to which we’ll
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked
servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because
you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant
just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the
jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matt.
Jesus refers to this unforgiving behavior as being “wicked.”
To the legalistic mind, wickedness is to deliberately break a
command—a command against a matter considered particularly evil. But
Jesus’ story is not about breaking a particular command in the Law of
Moses. Instead, he labels as “wicked” the withholding of mercy.
To ignore mercy received, or to be so callous as to be unwilling to
consider self in another’s shoes, is as sinful as an overt evil act
against another person. The punishment administered to the unforgiving
servant—torture in jail—fit the crime, because the unforgiving
servant had administered similar punishment.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless
you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matt.
Jesus was not bluffing in this stern warning. His heavenly Father has
forgiven all human sin—in Christ, our debt has been cancelled. That
debt was immeasurable, yet the Father forgave it all, extending that
forgiveness to each person an unlimited number of times.
In comparison, the debts we humans owe each other are infinitely small.
God expects us to do the unnatural for each other because he has done the
unnatural for us all. God is looking for a real, heartfelt forgiveness, not
a legalistic one.
Forgiveness in our lives
Let’s consider how this Gospel passage applies in our lives today.
Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question showed that forgiveness is a major
part of the life of anyone who follows Jesus. It is a daily activity versus
a once-in-a-while act. Earlier, Jesus had made this point in the
Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our
debts as we forgive our debtors.” To put these two requests together
reveals the frequency of God-to-human and human-to-human forgiveness. We
need to eat daily, and in relationships, because we are imperfect, we need
to be forgiven and to forgive daily.
What we owe God cannot be measured. Thus how many times we are forgiven
has no limit. The parable of the unforgiving servant emphasizes not only
the importance of human-to-human forgiveness, but also the enormity of the
proportion of God-to-human forgiveness.
Overriding our thoughts and the dynamics of our relationships with other
people is the reality that we live in the amazing grace of enormous,
immeasurable mercy freely granted to us by God our Father through Jesus
Christ our Lord.
Dear ones, never consider your sin too great for God to forgive. Never
think you’ve sinned one time too many. God’s forgiving grace is
immeasurable and unlimited. Confess your sin to him, and trust in him that
his grace through the blood of Jesus Christ covers it, enabling you to
receive it with gratitude. Then, realize that the same grace is expected
from you when you are offended.
Peter asked about forgiving a brother. Most of the time
forgiveness is easier when the offender is someone we like. In the parable,
Jesus chose servants who worked for the same king. They knew each other,
but their relationship was not specified. Forgiving a person in our circle
is usually not as easy as forgiving a friend. If the offender is an unknown
person or, even worse, an enemy, forgiveness is even more difficult.
Nevertheless, as Jesus’ words show, we are expected to forgive.
Let us not rationalize our way into withholding forgiveness because we
have no feelings toward the offender. Also, let us not consider a
friend’s offence greater than others. Note that in Matthew’s version
of the parable, there is no mention of the offending brother’s apology.
Is an apology necessary? Is forgiveness contingent on the repentance of the
offender? To the offender, an apology is good because it implies personal
accountability for the offence. The remorseful offender may follow-up with
acts of repentance (such as repaying the debt). But in Jesus’ way of
thinking, forgiveness is not contingent on an apology or repentance;
instead, it is a response to our being forgiven by God of more and greater
offences. Jesus intends that we see ourselves as the servant whose debt was
At the cross, Jesus asked for forgiveness of those who did not realize
what they were doing. They had neither apologized nor expressed remorse.
They simply were acting out of ignorance, and his compassion toward them
moved him to ask God to forgive them. Indeed, compassion for ignorance is
another good reason to forgive; nonetheless, whether or not we feel
compassion, we have reason to forgive because we have been forgiven.
The offence we experience from someone’s act against us is far less
than the sum total of our offences against God. If we have trouble
comprehending that fact, it would be helpful for us to spend some time in
prayer and reflection so that our inner eyes may be enlightened about the
truth concerning the enormity of our sin.
This parable also teaches us that forgiveness must go beyond outward
expressions such as words, facial expressions, gestures, or other actions.
Jesus spoke of forgiving from the heart. Reading Jesus’ words
may convince us of the need to forgive, but reading does not change our
hearts. Only the inner work of the Holy Spirit reaches our innermost
intentions and motivations. So, it is vital that we open ourselves fully to
the Spirit within us, who is there to lead and help. Prayer is a factor.
Not only are we to pray for a forgiving heart, but we are to pray for those
who have offended us. We may be pleasantly surprised on occasion to feel
our hearts warming toward people when we earnestly pray for them and their
The parable of the unforgiving servant packs two powerful messages:
God’s amazing and unlimited forgiveness toward us, and our corresponding
forgiveness of offenders because we have been forgiven. This parable can
seem to have a dominant negative message about our failure to forgive. But
Jesus intends that the message be to us both reassuring and convicting. We
are reassured that the divine forgiveness given us is immeasurable and
unlimited, and we are encouraged by that fact to respond, although on a
much smaller scale, with immeasurable, unlimited forgiveness toward others.
Sermon for September 24, 2017
Scripture readings: Ex.16:2-15 and Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45
(or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Ps. 145:1-8) Phil. 1:21-30; Matt. 20:1-16
Sermon by Linda Rex from Mat. 20:1-16
GENEROSITY, FAIRNESS & GOD’S
Last week, in the sermon from Matthew 18:21-35, we rejoiced in
God’s unlimited, unmeasurable forgiveness. Because of what Jesus has
done in our place and on our behalf, there is no debt we owe to God. The
debt has been cancelled! It’s gone! Jesus, to whom all judgment has
been given, left the judge’s seat, came down, took our place and paid
our debt in full.
That is the reality. Yet, sometimes we live as though it’s not.
Instead of partaking of the tree of life, we feed from the tree of good and
evil—living as though we still owe God for our sins. But Jesus says
to us: “The debt is gone—move on!”
Embracing God’s grace in Christ is how we need to live out our
relationships: with God, with other people, with ourselves. But God does
not force us to do so—we can choose to live as though there is still
a debt to pay. When we die, we can say to God, “Sorry—I did my best
to pay you back, but I failed.” How do you think God will reply? Perhaps
he’ll say, “Well, okay, if that’s the way you want to play
it—but my way is better. Jesus paid your debt—all of it. You
don’t owe anything. It’s gone. Enter into the joy of the Lord!”
Do you think we’ll believe God’s declaration of grace then?
If so, why don’t we believe it now, and live accordingly?
Today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 20 challenges us to answer that
question. It challenges our tendency to think in terms of justice—of
what we deem to be “just” and “fair.”
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
But then comes Jesus, who in Matthew 20:1-16 tells the parable of a man
who owns a vineyard—a story by which Jesus invites us to think of God
in perhaps a different way than we currently do. He is showing us that
God’s grace is extended equally to everyone. All are
included. In Christ, God has made a way for everyone to be part of his
When God calls us into relationship with himself, it’s not just so we
can be good, moral people with well-behaved lives. We tend to put that
little spin on it. God calls us into relationship with himself,
saying, “You know what, you can be part of my family. Tell all
the people you know this great good news. Tell them about me. Then, bring
God has a great harvest he is reaping and he is including us in it both
as the fruit of the harvest and as harvest workers. He’s saying,
“Let’s do this together!”
I remember as a mom how I would try to make something in the kitchen and
the kids would come in. I’d say to them, “We’re going to make cookies
today, kiddos!” But by the time we’re done, there’s flour everywhere
and the cookies are kind of strange. But you know what? They still taste
pretty good. However, the good part in this was not the cookies—it
was the fun we had working together: the stories told, the laughter and
even the crying shared.
God has not called us to be robots going around saying, “If I do
something wrong, God will get mad at me.” No, he’s calling us into
relationship with himself: “I know you’re going to trip and
fall,” he says to us, “but I’ll be here. Let me help you
In thinking about justice and fairness, it’s vital that we keep
God’s kingdom values in mind. We need to remember that he
has a crop he’s harvesting, which are disciples of Jesus. This is his
kingdom work and he invites us to participate. But we tend to think in
terms of doing things for God, and because we think that way, we
think he owes us. This is where prosperity gospel thinking comes
But the true gospel says God owes us nothing! Note as well that he
doesn’t freely give us eternal life so that everything in this life will
be free of trouble. That’s not what he’s promised us. We are
called to share in Jesus’ life, and sometimes that means sharing with
Jesus in suffering.
No, we don’t follow Christ for the rewards. We don’t serve him
to earn payment. Yes, Christ says we’ll receive blessings in this
life and in the next. But it’s not the promise of blessings that
draws us into sharing in the work Christ is doing to bring in the harvest.
Instead, we work out of gratitude, because we love God and want to
be with him. Then God provides for us as we participate. He comes alongside
us and makes sure we are provided for. We’ll get a little deeper into
In the parable, at the beginning of the day, the vineyard owner is
thinking, “I’ve got this crop and it needs to be harvested. I’ve got
to bring it in today.” So he goes to the marketplace to hire workers.
He says: “Come work for me, and I’ll pay you a denarius,” which
at that time was a typical day’s wage.
Remember that Jesus tells us to pray, “give us this day our daily
bread”—to pray for what we need day-by-day. He assures us that
God, who sees us and loves us, will take care of us. He assures us that his
grace is enough, though it’s not always pleasant. Remember
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? Three times he asked God to
remove it. But God’s answer was “no,” and his reassurance
to Paul was, “my grace is sufficient.” God sometimes says, “I’m
not going to give you what you desire, but what I know you need. Trust
me.” And Paul did. He wrote to Timothy, “godliness with contentment
is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). That’s not always an easy lesson
to learn, but it’s true.
We don’t labor to earn God’s favor. We don’t labor to
get God to feel better about us, or to smile upon us. We already have his
favor. He already is smiling. Why then do we labor for the Lord? Well,
it’s not to earn anything. We do so as a grateful response to
God’s lavish grace. Because he is a generous God, we are a generous
The vineyard owner invited these people to be laborers in the harvest.
As the day went along, he saw he needed more workers so he went back and
saw people still hanging around without work. So he gave them work, saying,
“I’ll give you what’s right.” The Greek word translated
“right” can also be translated “fair.” In
administering his grace, God is always right, he is always fair. But what
is right and fair in God’s way of thinking, does not align with a
legalistic way of thinking which says that what is fair is what we’ve
earned. But let me ask you this: have we done enough to earn God’s
grace? The answer, of course, is “no.” It’s a very good
thing that God’s sense of fairness is based on his goodness and
generosity, not on our performance. Why? Because our performance is pretty
Yet we still sometimes imagine that God is treating us unfairly. Like
the workers in the parable who had been working the longest, we might be
saying to God: “I’ve been such a good person all these years.
I’ve always tried to do the right thing. I’ve worked hard. You owe
But being much greater than we are, God’s sense of fairness is
much higher than ours. For God, fairness is about lavishing his love
equally on all. It’s not about giving people what they deserve. Grace
is precisely what none of us deserve, what none of us can earnno
matter how hard or how long we work.
God lavishes his grace of forgiveness upon all in a way that is
fundamentally equal, and in that sense “fair.” But please
understand, God’s grace involves more than forgiveness. Did you wake
up this morning? That was God’s grace. Did you deserve that? Did you
earn that? No, it was a gift. It was God’s grace.
What Jesus is teaching us in this parable is that God’s kingdom values
have to do with the grace of God being extended equally to all—equal,
because there is no end to it. God has this amazing ability to do the same
thing for everyone, while at the same time working with individuals in
particular, even unique ways. Sometimes his logic escapes us, but
we’ve learned to trust him.
I think about the time when, as a single mom, I was working in a nursing
home and needed to know what time it was so I could be where I needed to
be. Unknown to me, my watch had fallen off when I was leaving my car. Later
I looked everywhere for the watch, and I was in a panic because I
couldn’t find it—I didn’t have the money to buy another one. A
couple of days later, as I got out of my car, I found it. I had been
praying: “God, you know that I really need a watch. I’m going to have
to go buy one.” I was sort of arguing with God over whether I should
spend the money. And there, right in front of me, was my watch!
God often extends his grace to us in unexpected, even unusual ways. He
knows our need, he knows what is best for us at any given moment. It might
be small, it might be large, but it will always be an expression of
God’s goodness and generosity in a way that is fundamentally fair,
even when it doesn’t mean that God does all that we ask for. At
times, I’ve had to grin and bear it. But at those moments when he
knew it was important to my heart and life, God did what I needed, sending
me the message, “Linda’, I’m with you. I’m carrying
you. We’ll get through this together.”
It’s about trust, isn’t it? Trusting God to be who he says
he is—the God of all grace. Are we willing to receive his grace as he
gives it; when he gives it? Or are we clinging to thoughts like,
“God’s I’ve earned this; I deserve this. God, you’ve
got to help me, now!” Or perhaps we’re harboring thoughts like,
“I’m going to hold these debts against the person who owes me. I want
justice!” Either way, we block the flow of God’s lavish
generosity, his amazing grace.
Dear ones, receive the grace God has given, the way he gives it, and
when he gives it. Then give it away. It truly is a gift—and God keeps
on giving it—again, and again, and again. What a blessing! Let’s
close in prayer:
Thank you God for the limitless extravagance of your grace.
What a blessing it is to live in relationship with you, knowing you are not
a distant, cold, hard-hearted God, but a loving, kind Abba, Father—the
kind who cares about the little things in our lives, and the big things as
well. And even when it looks like things are a disaster, you’re present
with us, working it out. Thank you for including us in your harvest work
that we can participate with you in your kingdom even now. Lord, grant us
the grace to receive the gifts of your grace as you give them, and to pour
our hearts into whatever we are doing with you with joy and gratitude. We
pray all this, thanking you through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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